Category Archives: Literature in ELT

Bringing literature into the language class

This post was originally written for Helbling Hooked on Books Blog. Thanks to Nora Nagy and Maria Cleary for giving me the opportunity to share my views with their readers.

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.   Read more…

A ‘feast of languages’ at IATEFL

I’ve decided to call my presentation at IATEFL a ‘feast of languages’ not because I wanted to refer to the diversity of languages spoken by the delegates at the conference; neither because I wanted to allude to the diversity of ‘languages’ and voices in Shakespeare’s works but because I wanted to call my audience’s attention to the ways in which we sometimes approach Shakespeare with language learners.

The phrase ‘a great feast of languages’ comes from Love’s Labour’s Lost and, in isolation, it may sound as if Shakespeare is celebrating diversity and multilingualism. I think this illustrates very well the danger of taking bits and pieces of a text without looking at how they are inserted in the context of the work. In the play, there are two very pedantic and verbose characters called Don Armado and Holofernes, the schoolmaster, who are mocked by Moth, Armado’s page, and the country clown, Costard, for their linguistic ‘perversion’ and their meaningless use of discourse. They say that Armado and Holofernes  ‘have been to a great feast of languages and stol’n the scraps’ and that they ‘have long liv’d on the alms-basket of words’, which means that they pick words indiscriminately, without thinking about their meaning, just to sound learned and show off their supposedly superior linguistic knowledge.

The point I wanted to emphasize with the audience is that we should find ways of teaching Shakespeare to language learners that go beyond just picking words and phrases or teaching students a couple of Shakespearean idioms.  I believe that you need to help learners look at Shakespeare’s language in a more meaningful way. In order to do that, I suggest teachers choose a particular play and them select an extract of that play they want to explore with their students. Once you have chosen the passage, there are a couple of things you can do to analyse it in more depth:

  • Ask your students to read the text before coming to the classroom and ask them to work on the vocabulary at home, preferably using  the Shakespeare’s Glossary to help them with the meaning of less common words. Once you have taken the vocabulary issue out of the way, students will feel more confident to start thinking about the meaning of the lines.
  • In class, give your students the opportunity to watch the same scene being performed. This can come from a YouTube video as there is plenty of material available, from commercial films to clips of live theatre performances uploaded by the theatre companies.
  • Design pre-listening tasks and listening tasks to go with it. No need to be fancy here: these can be the same kinds of tasks that you would design for any listening activity.
  • Design some post-listening activities that make students revisit the passage and close read it. This may sound a bit old-fashioned, but in my opinion close reading is still be best way to work with a text

Close reading is a literary criticism technique used by both structuralist and post-structuralist critics to analyse the text. It is up to you to decide in which direction you want your students to go. I personally favour an approach that combines an analysis of the form and figurative language that is illuminated by a theoretically informed reading of the text. This may sound a little bit ‘too advanced’ for some language learners but in fact it is just a way to help students think about the nuances and implications of what is going on in the play. You may find out that some theoretical approaches work best with some particular genres. For example, I mainly use the new historicist approach with the history plays and feminist criticism/gender studies theory to analyse the comedies. Particular plays might also better lend themselves to particular readings, such psychoanalyst criticism with Hamlet or post-colonial criticism with The Tempest.  However, this is not carved in stone; you can use any approach to look at any of the plays.

My presentation was kindly sponsored by Macmillan since I am writing a couple of lesson plans and materials, as well as articles, for onestopenglish on teaching Shakespeare to EAP students. A video should be available soon.

Shakespeare at IATEFL

If you look at the programme at the 50th IATEFL conference this year in Birmingham you may be excused to think it could well be called the IATEFL Shakespeare Conference instead. There was a lot of Shakespeare going on and I am proud to say that the Literature, Media and Cultural Studies SIG has contributed quite a lot to it.

We started on Monday with a tour in Stratford-upon-Avon with a VIP visit to the Birthplace, a lecture on the recent archaeological discovers at New Place, followed by a visit to Harvard House and Hall’s Croft, culminating with the evening performance of Marlowe’s Faustus at the RSC – no Shakespeare play on Monday, I am afraid.

The Pre-Conference event on Tuesday counted on presenters coming from a variety of backgrounds and their presentations were meant to appeal to participants working in a multiplicity of ways as they covered discussions on Shakespeare’s language, the analysis of particular aspects of his work, and practical activities to bring Shakespeare to students in your everyday teaching practice. The PCE would not be possible without the generosity of our SIG friends who agreed to take part in the day. Thanks to Jeremy Harmer for accepting to open the event and to all the presenters for sharing their expertise, knowledge and experience with us. My heartfelt thanks to Professor David Crystal, the IATEFL Patron, who has so graciously agreed to share his vast knowledge of Shakespeare with us. Thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the British Council for their fantastic support and for sending their speakers, Lisa Peter and Martin Peacock, respectively. To know more about the PCE presentations, check the event programme here.

There was also Luke Prodromou presentation of Shakespeare’s female characters on the LMCS SIG day and I contributed with my tuppence with a presentation on Shakespeare in EAP, sponsored by Macmillan. Not to mention the British Council Signature Event on Shakespeare (click here to watch) and the marvelous evening events: first with Jeremy Harmer, Amos Paran, Marjorie Rosenberg and Glyn Jones singing Shakespeare’s songs, followed by David and Hilary Crystal double act presenting ‘an entertaining potpourri of new and old pieces on Shakespeare, including some unbelievable recent discoveries about the bard’, and closing with David Gibson and Luke Prodromou performance of ‘an original comedy inspired by a dozen works of the greatest writer in the English language’.

To see some photos, click on the link below

On trial and error

St Andrews is a very special place indeed for a number of quite obvious reasons and I was lucky to be able to come back this year to present at the annual EAP Conference that takes place at the University of St Andrews. A well-deserved word of praise is due here to Kerry Tavakoli for superbly organizing the event.

The theme this year was the balance between language and content and I presented a paper on combining literature and language. I started my presentation looking at the some of what I call the ‘EAP mantras’, i.e. some of the ideas and concepts that seem to have taken root in our approach to language teaching at HE and that generally go uncontested and unscrutinized. I have for a couple of years repeated these ‘mantras’ myself because they do seem, at a first glance, to make a lot of sense and there are for sure some grain of truth in them.  These are the kind of principles that have been instilled into my professional thought and practice when I started designing EAP lessons and materials:

  • ‘There must be a specific grammar and/or vocabulary focus in each lesson.’
  • ‘There must be a language output activity in each lesson.’
  • ‘Our job is to teach English language, not disciplinary knowledge.’
  • ‘These are international students. They are here to improve their English.’

Yet, when teaching literature and language I soon found out that these ‘mantras’ profoundly conflicted with my students’ needs and expectations and with my own understanding of what it means to work with literature in English language teaching. For two years I tried to find a compromise between those ideas and the reality of my classroom. I failed. I failed, especially in relation to the place of language in the syllabus and in the materials.

My first attempt was to focus on grammar and vocabulary. This was based on a selection of specific ‘advanced’ language discrete points informed by the CAE syllabus. Then I selected literary extracts where these pre-determined language items appeared and the language work was then as controlled language practice and activities that required students to summarize and paraphrase the extracts of the literary text using the target language. The problem with this approach is that Literature then becomes a mere source of grammar and vocabulary examples. The text becomes an ‘excuse’ for language use and practice and the language tasks are disconnected from literary analysis. Moreover, all too often students’ previous familiarity with selected grammar structures and vocabulary rendered the activities dull and there was no sense of linguistic improvement. The biggest issue, however, is that students ended up the term feeling that in fact they have studied very little of literature and there was no observed improvement in their essay writing skills.

My second attempt to address the language issue led me to  focus on ‘academic language’. Instead of working with generic grammar and vocabulary, I designed the language component of the units around academic language functions, such as hedging, causality, compare and contrast, signposting, style and register. Most work was done on literary criticism and again the activities involved controlled language practice and, as such, there was a fair amount of writing about the literary text using the model language. With hindsight, it is easy to see that this was also doomed to be a failure: Literature took a second place to criticism, there was a lack of engagement with the language in the primary text, and the language tasks were disconnected from literary analysis. Students tended towards a mechanical use of academic phraseology by using isolated expressions or vocabulary items in their writing. Once again there was no significant improvement in their essay writing skills.

It was at this point that I decided to turn the table and start it all over. My first step into this change process was to go back to the fundamentals and draw on my core understanding of what language and literature are. The mantras had to be rejected. They had to go because essentially they are based on a dualistic view of literature and language as two distinct entities or, in a less metaphysical phraseology, two discrete threads in the course syllabus: a language focus and a literary focus. Basically, this is wrong. My argument is that when teaching literature and language we don’t need to add a distinctive language component to a course or lessons because studying literature means to study how language creates characters, places, situations, themes, plots and responses from the reader. Literature is language in meaningful and memorable contexts. What we need to do is to focus on the literary text and go back to close reading – the old-fashioned technique employed by both structuralist and post-structuralist oriented literary critics.

By focusing on the text we are able to help students develop their language awareness, look at meaning in context, identify multiple voices in the text, look at how grammar generates meaning and how vocabulary choices shape the reader’s understanding of the characters and plot as well as give us the opportunity to explore figurative and dramatic language. I propose to replace those EAP mantras by the principles below:

  • There is no need to ‘add a language component to each lesson’ when you work with literature. Studying literature means to study language.
  • Writing output in the field of literary studies requires extensive reading and thinking – most output should thus be done as an independent learning activity outside the classroom.
  • Our job is to create opportunities for students to improve their language, study skills and critical thinking as well as give them the tools to expand their subject knowledge.
  • These are international students. They are here to improve their English, their knowledge of the subject matter, and to learn what it takes to be part of their academic community.

I don’t claim here to have found the perfect balance between language and content also because saying that would be to fall again into the trap of seeing both as distinct things, which may be the case with other subjects but not with Literature. In my courses, the most important aspect is to find a balance between input and output and between the reading of primary and secondary texts, but this is stuff for future blog posts.

Further reading

  • Cook, G. (1994) Discourse and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1891) The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Translated by V.W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Crystal, D. (2008) Think of my Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Davis, P. (2013) Reading and the Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Garrett-Petts, W. F. (2013) Writing About Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic. London: Broadview Press.
  • Johnson, K. (2013) Shakespeare’s English. Harlow: Pearson.
  • Hall, G. (2015) Literature in Language Education. 2nd Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Smith, E. (2013) Macbeth: Language & Writing. London: Bloomsbury.